A fair proportion of travellers to Kyūshū find themselves in KUMAMOTO (熊本) at some point. Not only is the city handily located between Fukuoka in the north and Kagoshima down south, but it also lies within striking distance of Aso to the east and Unzen to the west. As well as making a good base or stopover, the city itself is reasonably attractive and boasts a couple of worthwhile sights. Chief among these is the fearsome, fairy-tale castle dominating the town centre, and Suizenji-jojuen, one of Japan’s most highly rated gardens, in the western suburbs. Wars and development have meant that little else of particular note survives, though you’ve got to admire a city which invented the endearingly offbeat “Kobori-style” swimming which “involves the art of swimming in a standing posture attired in armour and helmet”.
Kumamoto owes its existence to the Katō clan, who were given the fiefdom in the late sixteenth century in return for supporting Tokugawa Ieyasu during his rise to power. Katō Kiyomasa, first of the feudal lords, not only built a magnificent fortress but is also remembered for his public works, such as flood control and land reclamation. However, political intrigue resulted in the Katō being ousted in 1632 in favour of the Hosokawa clan, who had previously held Kokura. Thirteen generations of Hosokawa lords ruled Kumamoto for more than two centuries, during which time the city thrived as Kyūshū’s major government stronghold, until feudal holdings were abolished in 1871. Six years later, the final drama of the Meiji Restoration was played out here when Saigō Takamori’s rebel army was defeated by government troops, but not before destroying much of Kumamoto’s previously impregnable castle.